Science is telling us we need to put down our phones and…talk to strangers?
Avoiding small talk and interactions with strangers is something many of us find ourselves doing on a regular basis — not because we hate people, per se, but because introverts in particular derive our energy from alone time. Which is great, except a new study says that by being more social and talking to strangers, we’re likely to be happier. So there’s that.
The study, conducted by University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and her colleague Gillian M. Sandstrom, decided to test whether brief interactions and conversations with strangers could be mood-lifting. So they asked participants to enter a busy coffee shop, grab a coffee, and made half of them strike up a conversation with the cashier.
Turns out we might be our own worst enemies when it comes to overall happiness because the research shows that connecting with people around us has a bigger impact than one might think.
“We found that people who were randomly assigned to turn this economic transaction into a quick social interaction left Starbucks in a better mood,” Dunn tells NPR. “And they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community.”
The social interactions they studied weren’t longer than a few minutes, but the results show that a simple conversation with a stranger in an elevator or, perhaps, another parent at the park could certainly increase feelings of happiness and human connection.
So what’s holding us back from engaging more? Well, according to the study, social anxiety, introversion, technology, and due to the fact that many of us are so bogged down with a zillion things to do on any given day, we simply convince ourselves we don’t have the time.
Listen, I’m an introvert. And this admission surprises many people, even those who know me fairly well. I often hear, “But you’re not shy! You’ve done community theater! You’re opinionated and advocate for yourself!” (That last one is courtesy of my therapist.)
And I say yes, yes, these are all true. But I feel like the best version of myself when I’m refreshed from enough alone time reading, writing, binging Netflix for long enough periods that I’ve reserved enough energy to head out into the world. I often describe it like this: I can get on stage and perform as a character or engage in public speaking as myself with no qualms whatsoever. Put me amid the audience later when I’m being asked questions or forced to engage in small talk, and I want to crawl into a hole.
Luckily, Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago behavioral scientist, says finding a balance is easier than we’d think. “It takes very little to acknowledge somebody’s existence,” Williams tells NPR.
Similarly to the study, we can strike up a brief conversation with people we have to talk to anyway — like the local barista, or a cashier at your grocery store. Not enough to distract them from getting their job done, but just a quick friendly exchange can improve our state of happiness.
The study also suggests putting our phones away because being on them sends a signal that we’re “not interested in interacting with the people around us.” I mean, YEAH, that’s kind of the point for a lot of us?
I don’t know about you, but the thought of striking up a conversation with someone who is doing their job, like a barista or cashier, feels like an automatic “no.” Unless they initiate it, and I feel comfortable responding in kind, I will avoid it like the plague because I suffer from crippling self-awareness and also don’t want to hold anyone up while they’re working or waiting in line behind me.
BUT I GUESS IF WE WANNA BE HAPPY WE SHOULD TRY. Or something.
The mood boost of talking to strangers doesn’t last long, but the research suggests that a happy life is made up of many of these positive events occurring frequently. And yes, human connection is important. Just not as easily or automatically enjoyable for everyone when it’s the humans found within the pages of your favorite book or TV show.
“Happiness seems a little bit like a leaky tire on a car,” Epley explains. “We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.”
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